Arkansas high school censors investigation by student newspaper
First posted December 10, 2018 10:31am EST
Last updated July 1, 2019 3:55pm EDT
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- Legal Action
An Arkansas school district censored a high school newspaper’s investigation into the transfer of multiple high school football players between schools within the district. After the school demanded the article be taken down and suspended publication of The Har-Ber Herald, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) became involved and advocated on behalf of the newspaper, its reporting, and its adviser.
Halle Roberts was editor-in-chief of The Har-Ber Herald, the student-run newspaper at Har-Ber High School. When the incident occurred, she was in her senior year.
Paul Griep, the principal of Har-Ber High School, made the call to suspend The Herald.
On Oct. 30, 2018, The Herald published a story questioning the legitimacy of the school district’s approval of six football players’ transfer from Har-Ber High School to rival Springdale High. Both schools are part of the Springdale Public School District, just outside Fayetteville, in the northwest corner of Arkansas. The investigation alleged that the team members transferred for athletic rather than academic reasons and that the district approved the move even though it violated policy.
Days after the investigation was published, school district officials demanded the story, and a subsequent editorial, be taken down, a move that broke Arkansas’s “New Voices” law, which gives student journalists legislative protections against censorship without due cause. The Herald’s staff asked the district to reconsider its decision, but the superintendent’s only response was a memo to the newspaper’s adviser, Karla Sprague, calling the article “intentionally negative, demeaning, hurtful and potentially harmful,” according to the Associated Press.
On Nov. 27, Griep suspended publication of the newspaper until the district could issue new guidelines on student media, according to BuzzFeed News. District officials called Sprague “insubordinate” before threatening to fire her, and Griep alerted the adviser that the school administration planned to implement a prior-review period for all of The Herald’s future content.
Roberts argued that attempts to change the publication policy constituted a violation of students’ rights to Free Speech. “They are trying to change the policy, which takes away our First Amendment right,” Roberts told BuzzFeed News.
SPLC comes to Herald’s defense, republishes stories
On Dec. 3, the SPLC came to the defense of The Herald’s staff and posted both the investigative story and the editorial about the athletes’ high school transfers on its website. “The Har-Ber Herald’s story was factual and reflected thorough reporting, including the use of public records,” the SPLC wrote. “The only discernible reason for censorship was because it reflected poorly on the district.”
The SPLC, along with nearly 30 other organizations, also wrote a letter to the school district’s superintendent expressing concern over the censorship of the story and the treatment of Sprague.
Amid pressure, district allows stories to be republished on Herald site
On Dec. 5, the district backtracked and allowed both the investigative report and the editorial to be reinstated to The Har-Ber Herald’s website. However, the district did not comment on its new prior-review policy, according to the SPLC.